Kazbegi: An Impulsive Motorcycle Ride Through the Caucasus Mountains
Updated: Feb 8
People talk a lot of shit at a bar, especially toward the end of the night. If you've partied before, you know the moments where you make grandiose plans for the morning, only soon to be forgotten in the midst of the dreamless sleep that follows.
"I want to go to Mt. Kazbegi!" Reily shouted at me above the loud 90s rock and chatter.
The "Dive Bar" was located in the heart of Tbilisi. Before the pandemic, it was a great place to go if you were looking to meet up with fellow ex-pats. This is where I stumbled into Riley.
"Do it," I said, "It's beautiful out there. I'm sure you'll get a ton of good pictures."
"Yeah? You think you could take me out there?"
"How?" I asked.
"On your bike, man. That's yours outside, right?"
"Dude, that's a Ducati. It's made for one Italian-sized teenager... Not two full-grown-ass men."
"Nah, It'll be fine," Reily said as he handed me another shot.
We made a quick toast and slugged them back.
"Screw it, let's go tomorrow."
I'm not sure why I even bothered to wake up early in the morning, but I'm one of those people who can never back down from a commitment made, even a commitment soaked in a lot of alcohol. But, apparently, Reily wasn't the sort to back down either. He was waiting outside at precisely 10 AM as planned.
I walked out of my apartment building to find him surveying my bike on the street.
"Bike looks a lot smaller today," he drawled.
"Told you, man."
We both sighed heavily. I looked at his backpack, which was also probably too large for the bike by itself.
"You can still back out of this trip," I offered.
"Nah... we gotta do this now," he said firmly.
I had just installed new mufflers on the bike a few days before, and the difficulties immediately began. The mufflers didn't clamp onto the pipes firmly enough, and before we were even outside the city, one of them fell off into the street.
"That's gonna be your job to run back and get them," I told Reily.
Despite being hungover and the annoyance of having to stop periodically to grab the mufflers, the warm April day was inspiring, and the little Ducati 600 rumbled along up and down the mountain roads as we headed further north. I didn't know much about my passenger other than he was also an American who loved to travel and had an impressive camera collection. He also had absolutely zero fear on the back of the bike. As we swung around the twisty mountain roads, he would be holding on one-handed, trying to get a good shot on his Fujifilm.
We made a quick stop to get some Khinkali, Georgia's famous dumpling.
The Khinkali is a dish that originated in the region we were traveling to, so it only seemed fitting. The view from the tiny mountain restaurant was fantastic, and the beer was cold. Unfortunately, however, the air was getting colder too.
We quickly realized that April may be warm in the very temperate region of Tbilisi, but the temperature was dropping rapidly as we increased altitude.
After our meal, we got back on the ever-steepening road. My poor Ducati, named Duchess, was no longer rumbling but rather chugging as the weight combined with the thin mountain air was nearly stalling out the engine.
We rode up higher to find snow stacked along each side of the road. We were now in the mountain town of Gudauri, a funny little ski village that is mostly just a single road lined with hotels and shops.
We took another stop as we reached the highest altitude of the trip to get some good pictures and give our freezing bodies a rest from the moving air.
"It's all downhill from here," I said reassuringly.
Reluctantly we got back on the bike for the last time and crested the mountain.
The road on the other side was far less windy, and we made good use of the momentum. The small town in the shadow of the great mountain lay in front of us only several miles away, and we were rocketing towards it like a two-wheeled comet with a death wish. There was no fear anymore, only the desire for the trip to be over.
We arrived in Stepantsminda. There was an old bus near the edge of the city converted into a coffee shop. We stopped there and had several hot chocolates and several shots of brandy to warm up while we called around to find a hostel to spend the night in.
We milled about the town for a while, taking photos, and continued with the brandy drinking.
By nightfall, we were ready to hit the sack. The little BnB Reily had found was up the mountain slope a small distance. Unfortunately, the road was more of a goat path than a road, and we were in no condition to ride. Nevertheless, we managed to huff and puff and push Duchess the Ducati up the little way.
As we lay in the small room, Reily recounted adventures from before and other times spent on the backs of motorcycles in different lands. One of the best parts of any adventure is meeting people you can share these kinds of stories with and know that it's fully understood. There's never a "why would you do that?" just appreciation.
The road back to Tbilisi
In the morning, Reiley and I woke up to see fresh snow falling.
"I hope you don't take offense," Reiley said, "but I think I'm going to check and see what it would cost to take a cab or bus back to Tbilisi."
"None taken. Riding two up in icy conditions on these roads would be suicide."
The snow was coming down faster, and I decided to wait to get my first coffee once I made it to Gudauri. The first part of the trip back was miserable. The owners of the BnB had helped me rig the bice to prevent the mufflers from falling off, so at least that problem had been solved, but the leather gloves I had, did little to protect my hands. I had to continuously stop to warm them on the hot exhaust pipes. The old carburetors were not handling the altitude change well. I should have thought to tune them, but instead, there I was, ripping the throttle with one hand to keep the bike from dying and the other hand holding the muffler until the glove began to smoke.
Somehow, all the little hand-warming stops made very little difference, and by the time I got to Gudauri, my hands were so frozen that I couldn't undo my helmet buckle. I walked into the first restaurant I passed. The waitress saw me and looked puzzled at first but quickly realized what was happening. She didn't speak any English but immediately showed me to sit down and then pushed a hot cup of tea into my immobile fingers. I sat at the table and ordered some food once my hands could use silverware once again.
It was a nice moment of reflection as I sat there, chuckling to myself at how after all of that, we only took a handful of pictures and basically put ourselves through hell just to spend the night in a different town. It was purely the journey and absolutely nothing else. The thoughts of the rest of the trip warmed me up further as I imagined the valley below and the long road that no one would be traveling. There would be no speed limits, only limits of what your nerves can tolerate and your skill can accommodate. The rest of the journey would be of brutal speed between lush green meadows expanding upwards into the base of mountains so green they look like make-believe.
I looked up to see a sizeable Russian family gathering at a large table near mine.
"Are you traveling?" one of the men asked me as he sat down.
"Having a bit of an adventure right now," I replied.
"Come sit with us and tell us." He said as he motioned to a vacant seat.
And just like that, the journey had already become a story.